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Vetting has nothing to do with horses and cows! This is a process of examination and evaluation. Used as a verb, ‘to vet’ means ‘to subject somebody or something to a careful examination or scrutiny, especially when this involves determining suitability for something.’ This often translates to performing a background check.
Why would you vet? There are many reasons, but two purposes come to mind immediately: (1) to assist in gathering information on potential and seated jurors, information that could be used to pick jurors, dismiss jurors, and possibly influence jurors during opening and closing arguments; and (2) to verify the background your expert witnesses, as well as those of your opponent. Vetting might also include finding details about your client that will help your case.
A crucial step in preparation for trial is the vetting of an expert’s credentials. For instance, a jury verdict in favor of Merck & Co. in a Vioxx trial was thrown out by a New Orleans federal judge when it was discovered that a cardiologist who testified for the defense lied about his credentials. In Toronto, a psychiatrist’s license was suspended when it was discovered that he misrepresented his credentials when he served as an expert witness in two trials.
What tools can you use for vetting? There are major research services that will check on someone’s background. However, there are many resources available on the Web that can also assist with researching an expert’s background…and also the background of a lay witness or a juror, as well as your own client. Assuming surprises at trial aren’t something you like to deal with, here are a few resources you can use:
Background Check: When you need to locate background information about a person, go to www.pipl.com.
Blogs: People create a permanent record (as in ‘once in cyberspace, always in cyberspace’) when they post entries and participate in discussions in blogs. Go to Google Blog Search or Clusty to see if a person maintains a blog. Then check their blog to see what they’re saying.
Newsgroups and Discussion Lists: To find postings, use Google Groups where current groups are hosted and there is an archive from 1985 forward.
Podcasts: If you want to know if your expert or juror has said something relevant to your case in a podcast, try Podzinger.
Networking Sites: People post their profiles, pictures, and all kinds of miscellaneous information about themselves on social networking sites. There are several out there: LinkedIn, MySpace, Facebook, and Twitter are good places to start, but there are others.
Corporate Records: For information about publicly traded corporations, as well as information about individuals such as investments, education and employment history, try The US Securities and Exchange Edgar Data Base. Note that the SEC Edgar database is in the process of being replaced by a new system called IDEA, short for Interactive Data Electronic Applications. This new system will at first supplement and then eventually replace the EDGAR system. It will provide investors with far faster and easier access to key financial information about public companies and mutual funds. Do have your volume turned on when you check out the IDEA Web site.
Associations and Non-Profits: When you want more information about an association, its tax return may be the key. Not only are returns required for non-profits, but they are also public information. Try GuideStar.com.
Public Records: There are several sources for public records. Try Search Systems, Virtual Gumshoe, and Public Records Online Directory.
Social Security Numbers: You won’t have an easy time finding social security numbers on the Web due to privacy issues. However, you can verify that a number is valid by entering the number at the SSN Validator. You won’t get the name of the person holding the number, but you will be able find out if, when and where the number was issued and if a death claim has been filed against the number. It works…I checked my number and I’m still alive!
Is Vetting Ethical? I’ll begin by cautioning you to check your state’s ethics rules and opinions, as well as the code of conduct, to see what applies to you. Provided you’re clear there, all of the foregoing information (and much more) can be gathered legally and ethically. Of course, it’s unethical to misrepresent your status or position to obtain information, and the information can’t be used to bribe or blackmail. Further, you’ll be gathering information that people consider confidential…there’s definitely a conflict between your desire for information and a person’s desire for privacy. The information you gather should probably be kept hush-hush. It can be used for peremptory strikes without indicating exactly why the potential juror is being dismissed. Information can be referenced subtly in closing arguments. Analogies to information can be used to gain sympathy for your client.
Your Challenge: Take the ‘no surprise’ route in your work. Use the Web to search for useful information regarding potential and seated jurors, expert and lay witnesses, and even your client. If you find pictures of your client on his FaceBook page that would indicate he suffers no ill effects from his accident, you’ll want to know that before you go into the court room. If you find your opponent’s ‘expert’ is not qualified to give expert testimony, you’ll have an important nugget for your case. If you learn that one of the jurors is a Little League coach, reference to baseball in closing arguments may result in a home run for your case.
© 2009 Vicki Voisin, Inc.
About the Author
Vicki Voisin, also known as The Paralegal Mentor, publishes the bi-weekly ezine ‘Strategies for Paralegals Seeking Excellence’ where she offers tips for paralegals and others who want to create lasting success in their personal and professional lives. Get tips and information at no cost at www.paralegalmentor.com